On June 15th, the night before I flew to London, I got drinks with a group of curators at Betty F***, a divey gay bar in a Berlin basement. They wanted to know why I was going to London, where the vote on Brexit was scheduled for eight days after my arrival. I offered a cheeky excuse: The pound was cheap, and if the Brexit vote went through it would be even cheaper. Maybe I could make a small profit playing currency arbitrage with fungible British products: Buy up loads of Burberry scarves with overvalued dollars and sell them at a premium on eBay.
A week before the vote, talking about Brexit was like talking about Game of Thrones, a fantasy flickering in the periphery of my attention span. At that point, I could be all “smiles and laughs,” as I was later accused of being, because the possibility of historic change seemed so entirely implausible. Another world is possible. Well, yes, theoretically.
Maybe my cynicism marks me as an American of a certain generation. After Hope and Change and Occupy Wall Street, we got the Tea Party, the debt ceiling crisis, the candidacy of Donald Trump. The passions of the left and the right always seemed primed to neutralize one another — as always in a high stakes media-primed orgy of speculation — to avoid creating actual change.
Arriving in London late the next day, I open Grindr. A beefy blond bear wants me to come over and cuddle. I’m exhausted after being trapped on the runway in a cramped easyJet for nearly four hours so I decline, suggesting we meet the next day. When I wake up the following morning and check my messages, I’m bewildered by what I find. The beefy blond bear is conflicted. He wants to give me a blow job, but confides that his work colleague has been murdered, so he’s not sure if he’s up for it.
It’s quickly revealed that his work colleague is Jo Cox, the Yorkshire Labour MP who was shot and stabbed to death by pro-Brexit extremist Thomas Mair. When asked to confirm his name during his court appearance, Mair answered: “My name is death to traitors, freedom to Britain.” The murder has the spooky effect of calming markets and edging up the pound.
The BT Tower looms over Soho, cyberpunk and grim in a way only badly maintained British modernist architecture can be. The LED screen on the top of the tower is scrolling Jo Cox’s name and the hashtag: #MoreInCommon. Retrospectively, this never felt like enough. This was never a story that needed a martyr. It was always already a story chock-full of them. Early in the morning of the 24th, as the votes were tallied, more than half of the United Kingdom voted to become economic martyrs.
The most hated nation on earth. I see the phrase pop through my feed. In bed with some English-born Irish boy, I can feel the shame and anxiety coursing through the United Kingdom. “We’ve really done it now,” he says, rolling over with a sigh.
There’s enough schadenfreude to make me distinctly uncomfortable. The mocking clickbait about the British frantically Googling “What is the EU?” A friend texts that it seems the British are just as stupid as Americans. In the U.S. I think we’d like to believe that the Brexit can just be chalked up to racists. It absolves us from thinking deeply about the sweeping nihilism infecting a significant portion of every Western electorate since the crash of 2008 and the rolling crises it’s generated.
There’s something almost comical about everyone insisting that GDP growth will almost certainly drop to a new trend line. GDP growth for whom? After years of stagnant and falling wages while corporate profits boomed and trading floors around the world surged to new heights, is anyone so surprised that many people think prosperity is an empty promise destined to flow into someone else’s bank account?
I’ve never visited a city as obsessed with quality of life as London. The Anglo-Irish boy, Dan, seems shocked that I even find London pleasant. “But the quality of life here is so low. I’ve lived in Australia and seen what kind of quality of life I could achieve there….” He pauses blinkered: “Why would anyone want to live here?”
Well, obviously many people would want to live here. That’s the crux of the matter. Since the ‘90s, immigration to the UK has been booming. Across the English Channel in Calais, the migrant encampment called “the jungle” has become a permanent fixture. Migrants who have made it to France are so determined to make it the last few miles to the cliffs of Dover — to English prosperity and opportunity — that they are willing to wait months and years in a temporary encampment with no proper services or running water. So, yes, obviously some people do want to live here.
I meet my brother in Hackney for Indian food. He’s British and voted to leave. “I’ve got quite a bit of money saved for a down payment on a house and was hoping the Brexit would crash the property market,” he explains. I’m shocked but also amused. His instincts remind me of Naomi Klein’s book Crisis Capitalism: There’s always a profit to be made in hard times. I wonder if that mindset has just migrated to the middle and working classes.
No one else in my British family voted Leave, he reports. This seems to be the narrative floating conversationally through London. Dan says his sister voted Leave, and they’re not speaking. “She lives in Essex,” he assures me. I’m not quite sure what that means. I presume it’s something like insisting Donald Trump is from Queens. The cosmopolitan bubble of the capital has left everyone bewildered, with a sense that they are watching populism foment at a distance.
A boy in the house where I’m staying talks dejectedly about how his dodgy uncle voted Leave as well. “Who thought European would be the top of my criteria for dating?” he asks. Everyone is talking about moving. To Melbourne, to Toronto, to Berlin… With the rise of Trump, no one mentions New York.
Dan complains that he needs to find his Irish passport. My little brother does as well. I’ve been in the process of getting the proper paperwork together for it. I regret not having moved faster: All you need is one grandparent to have been born in the Republic of Ireland (where my father’s father was born, before he emigrated to the UK in the 1950s). I ask the boy in the house how many people in England he thinks will apply for Irish passports: “Oh, at least 50 percent of the people eligible.” Irony of ironies that another great wave of immigration to the United Kingdom will be the way out of the current impasse for many.
What frightens people most is the identity crisis Brexit has brought on. At Pride in Soho, I talk to a couple: Darren and Darren. “The most liberal nation on Earth; who would’ve thought it would happen here?” one Darren says. Historiographers might disagree with that epithet, but what matters is the story the British tell about themselves has forever changed.
My friend Christopher, who is British and an artist, texts me two days after the vote: “Democracy isn’t working. Anywhere.” I find this the most frightening sentiment. If democracy can’t be trusted in the United Kingdom, or for that matter the United States: What can be? What’s our backup plan?
On my last day in London, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the hot takes and media analysis. I smoke duty free cigarettes in the garden behind the newly renovated Hackney townhouse where I am staying. As always, the sky is a glimmer of particulate matter and warmth carried from across the ocean, opening to bits of sunshine while spots of rain careen through the foliage of the fig trees and strawberry bushes. It reminds me of my grandmother’s garden: the small retaining wall and steps, the preoccupation with roses, the snails and slugs and bumblebees performing their ambient ecological duties. It leaves me with the naive confidence that even in times of rapid change, certain things remain.